Background: Lack of education and an economic dependence on men are often suggested as important risk factors for HIV infection in women. We assessed the efficacy of a cash transfer programme to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections in young women.
Methods: In this cluster randomised trial, never-married women aged 13-22 years were recruited from 176 enumeration areas in the Zomba district of Malawi and randomly assigned with computer-generated random numbers by enumeration area (1:1) to receive cash payments (intervention group) or nothing (control group). Intervention enumeration areas were further randomly assigned with computer-generated random numbers to conditional (school attendance required to receive payment) and unconditional (no requirements to receive payment) groups. Participants in both intervention groups were randomly assigned by a lottery to receive monthly payments ranging from US$1 to $5, while their parents were independently assigned with computer-generated random numbers to receive $4-10. Behavioural risk assessments were done at baseline and 12 months; serology was tested at 18 months. Participants were not masked to treatment status but counsellors doing the serologic testing were. The primary outcomes were prevalence of HIV and herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2) at 18 months and were assessed by intention-to-treat analyses. The trial is registered, number NCT01333826.
Findings: 88 enumeration areas were assigned to receive the intervention and 88 as controls. For the 1289 individuals enrolled in school at baseline with complete interview and biomarker data, weighted HIV prevalence at 18 month follow-up was 1·2% (seven of 490 participants) in the combined intervention group versus 3·0% (17 of 799 participants) in the control group (adjusted odds ratio [OR] 0·36, 95% CI 0·14-0·91); weighted HSV-2 prevalence was 0·7% (five of 488 participants) versus 3·0% (27 of 796 participants; adjusted OR 0·24, 0·09-0·65). In the intervention group, we noted no difference between conditional versus unconditional intervention groups for weighted HIV prevalence (3/235 [1%] vs 4/255 [2%]) or weighted HSV-2 prevalence (4/233 [1%] vs 1/255 [<1%]). For individuals who had already dropped out of school at baseline, we detected no significant difference between intervention and control groups for weighted HIV prevalence (23/210 [10%] vs 17/207 [8%]) or weighted HSV-2 prevalence (17/211 [8%] vs 17/208 [8%]).
Interpretation: Cash transfer programmes can reduce HIV and HSV-2 infections in adolescent schoolgirls in low-income settings. Structural interventions that do not directly target sexual behaviour change can be important components of HIV prevention strategies.
Funding: Global Development Network, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, National Bureau of Economic Research Africa Project, World Bank's Research Support Budget, and several World Bank trust funds (Gender Action Plan, Knowledge for Change Program, and Spanish Impact Evaluation fund).
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